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February 28, 2011

Another Campus Death Raises Questions About the S-word Taboo

The vague, February 17 email that went out to the entire St. Michael's College community from President John Neuhauser was written in language that's become all too familiar:

"Saint Michael’s College has experienced a terrible tragedy.  A first-year student, Jordan Porco, age 18, of Andover, Connecticut, died unexpectedly in his room in Lyons Hall on the college campus Wednesday evening, February 16."

What followed were the administration's expressions of sympathy, condolences and prayer for the young man's family and friends, as well as the requisite offers to counsel or minister to any students, faculty or staff who may be having difficulty coping with the tragic loss.

Mascot_newMark

And once again, another respected institution of higher learning in Vermont sidestepped an opportunity to speak frankly, publicly and without euphemism about a major public-health crisis plaguing this country: teen suicide.

On November 3, Seven Days ran this story about a similar reluctance on the part of the University of Vermont to label the October deaths of two of its students in as many weeks as suicides.

Like St. Mike's, UVM steeped its campus-wide communique in language it deemed less offensive to the student's next of kin, while offering reassurances that the death of UVM freshman Alexander Chernik was not the result of "bullying, bias or foul play."

The deliberate, self-inflicted death of another UVM student, Frank Christopher Evans, 24, in South Burlington, which occurred two weeks earlier, wasn't announced by the university at all, according to a UVM spokesperson, because Evans wasn't enrolled in school that semester.

But unlike UVM's Vermont Cynic, which merely parroted the administration's linguistic aversion for what was already a fairly well-known fact on campus, the student reporters at SMC's The Defender asked the administration and the Colchester Police hard questions about Porco's cause of death, both in the interest of dispelling campus rumors and to get to truth.

The Defender article (a collaborative effort by its entire staff) also reported that FOX 44 News in Burlington pulled its story on Porco's death because, according to the Defender, "it is company policy [at FOX] not to publish articles about suicide, unless it in regard to a public figure, or a death caused by bullying."

For Buff Lindau, St. Mike's director of marketing and communications, this was the first time in her more than 30 years at the Catholic college that she's had to report the suicide of one of her students, a painful and difficult task for any institution, let alone a Catholic one.

Nevertheless, Lindau seemed somewhat testy when asked about the Defender's coverage of the story and what she's chosen to make public about the tragedy.

“There’s been a huge array of counseling nonstop, night and day, in the residence halls as well as in the classrooms,” Lindau told Seven Days. “Our policy has been to respond to queries that, yes, a student took his own life and here’s his age and address. What else are we supposed to tell you?”

For its part, the American Association of Suicidology, a national nonprofit dedicated to preventing suicide, offers a few answers to that question. Among them: that suicide now ranks as the third leading cause of death for young people between the ages 15 to 24. Or, that one in 12 college students have made a suicide plan. Or, that it's estimated that suicide claims the lives of more than 1000 college students each year — "estimated," because many of those suicides go unreported as such by college administrators, usually at the urging of family members.

Obviously, Vermont hasn't escaped these national trends, as evidenced by two other suicides in as many days by students in Vermont's public schools. On January 18, 15-year-old Connor Menning took his own life in the bathroom of Mount Mansfield Union High School, just as the school day had begun. One day earlier, Vermont State Police reported the death of a 16-year-old Dummerston girl, also from a self-inflicted gunshot wound.

Though those deaths were widely reported as "unrelated," they also come at a time when the state budget for mental-health services, especially those targeting young people, have been in sharp decline. Last Thursday, a coalition of mental-health advocates, including Mount Mansfield's principal, Jennifer Botzojorns, were in Montpelier calling on lawmakers to reconsider Gov. Peter Shumlin's proposed cuts in services to people with developmental disabilities, mental illness and addiction.

Notably, Shumlin's proposed budget calls for zeroing out funding for Vermont's 92 student assistance professionals. SAPs are the school-based, mental-health professionals who, in the words of Floyd Nease, executive director of the Vermont Association for Mental Health, are on "the front lines" in public schools looking for problems such as substance abuse, depression and other forms of mental illness — in other words, the leading issues that put kids at greater risk of taking their own life.

“This cut does in one year what the Douglas administration’s cuts did in the last three years put together," says Nease, a former Democratic lawmaker from Johnson, about the nearly $4.8 million in proposed cuts which, when combined with matching Medicaid dollars, would total more than $11 million. “You mean to tell me that there aren’t $4.8 million worth of road projects that could wait one year?”

Nease wouldn't go so far as to condemn the practice by colleges and universities of not naming suicides when they occur. For example, he points out that administrators may be averse to prematurely describing a death as a suicide until a medical examiner has made that determination. Nease also understands administrators' desire to spare family members more pain than they've already suffered.

"What I’d like to know is, what are [school administrators] doing as a result?" he asks. "What measures are they taking to prevent it from happening again, to identify people who are in trouble, and intervene earlier. What they call it isn’t as important as what they do about it.”

From the perspective of Young Writers Project, it has been interesting to see how teens have addressed the suicides of Connor and Leah and, several years ago, of Aaron Xue. They have written with power, poignancy and support -- both of each other, of friends and of family. Their airing of their thoughts and emotions is, I believe, extremely healthy.

Take a look: http://youngwritersproject.org/connor.leah and follow the links attached to the keywords of Connor and Leah or to Aaron.

In fairness to school officials, they must also deal with competing interests and concerns, particularly in respecting the privacy or wishes of a student's family -- not an easy situation. Sometimes those outside the community can help spur civil discussion.
geoff gevalt

Bringing attention to individual cases has not shown that it prevents youth suicide, but rather would lead a troubled individual to believe they would get the same attention if they were take their own life.

Geoff has it absolutely correct. It isn't up to the institution to air the details of these tragedies. They showed respect to the families and it sounds like St. Mike's is doing an excellent job providing internal support to their student body.

As Ms. Lindau stated-- what more did you want?

Dialogue about the general crisis is important.

Providing education about suicide prevention and education is important.

Sharing statistics and leading people to support services is important.

Gossiping about what happened to one individual or criticizing how this was shared is NOT important.

Mr. Picard, maybe you should have saved your energy and redirected it to creating the dialogue, providing education and sharing statistics rather than criticizing these two institutions.

Shame on you.

Disappointed Reader, I beg to differ. "Creating dialogue, providing education and sharing statistics" is exactly what this post was meant to encourage, and it's what the Defender staff was trying to do through accurate, thorough and dispassionate reporting. Gossip is what spreads when institutions of higher learning, which are charged with preparing young people for the realities of life, cannot even utter the name of the problem. Not calling a suicide a suicide doesn't prevent the next person from taking his or her own life. And pretending the problem doesn't exist simply by couching it in easier-to-swallor euphemisms only results in inaccurate statistics about the true scope of the problem.

Ken- I wasn't criticizing the Saint Michael's students' article in The Defender. I think they did a tremendous job covering the story. They gathered the information from multiple sources and reported on what happened. That article was written for *their* community.

The school's PR clearly are providing the basic facts. The student took his life. Here's his age. He's from ______.

Did you want more than that???

I sincerely appreciate your reporting and investigative practices, but in this instance, I'm disappointed.

The journalistic standard is to not discuss and report on individual cases unless a larger issue of bullying or illicit behavior is included.

I have a hard time saying this, but I can't believe that Fox news (given, it's the local affiliate) has it right this time.

I **DO** appreciate you bringing light to Shumlin's disappointing decision to cut funding for the SAPs. As an ardent ShumBoy supporter, I feel he should be answer to those cuts in light of the suicides that have occurred in Vermont. THAT would be newsworthy.

It sounds like Saint Mike's is doing a great job working to support and provide resources to their students as well as showing respect to the family who lost a loved one.

I agree with Ken Picard that suicide is a very important issue. But I think Ken missed the mark somewhat by focusing on some imaginary failing on the part of St. Mikes to reveal a bunch of personal information about a student --including the cause of death. St. Mikes owes a duty to the student and his family, and to the St. Mike's community (which they seem to be meeting). They don't owe a duty to the media or the general public. Further details should come from the police, medical examiner or the family. And their is a danger in creating notoriety around a particular suicide death especially right when it happens since copy cat suicides are known to often follow. Would St. Mike's want to take the chance of contributing to a second student fatality? I would also note that there is stigma in suicide and this is why it is more sensitive to the family, friends and college community to use accurate language (took his own life) but not language that might cause undue pain (suicide). It's cultural sensitivity. Ken, if an employee at Seven Days committed suicide would Seven Days feel obligated or justified in reporting all the personal details to the media?

"Disappointed," I respect your points, as well as the desire on the part of St. Michael's College to report on the death of a student in a way that is sensitive to the feelings and wishes of the family. I totally get that, and in no way do I support the media sensationalizing or glorifying such tragedies.

At the same time, I also feel that college and universities are in a unique position in their communities to help their students learn from painful events like this one by beginning a public dialogue about them. I can't help but believe that one reason why suicide, like rape, is still so pervasive in our society is because of the social stigmas attached to its victims. Rape survivors, like the families of people who take their own lives, feel a sense of shame and guilt about what happened. It's only by talking with other survivors who've been through similar experiences that we begin to dispel some of that shame and guilt.

I also disagree that the only suicide worthy of public discourse in the press is the one caused by bullying, harassment or other illicit behaviors. Every day, 12 teens in this country take their own lives. To me, that's an epidemic and a public-health emergency. If we had 12 teens dying each day from sports-related head injuries, caffeinated drinks or the flu virus, that story would be front-page news. Instead, because this is related to another kind of sickness, mental illness, we couch it in euphemisms and try to prevent the contagion of others by calling it a private matter.

Tom, as to your question about whether Seven Days would report on the suicide of one of its staffers, since I'm not "management," I can't give you a definitive answer. But I do hope we would practice what we preach and be as honest and open as we could about such a tragedy.

Thank you both for your thoughtful feedback.

On the one hand we want the right to take our life through physician assisted suicide, on the other suicide without the assistance of a physician is a tragedy.

We are granted the right to life, with that comes the right to end it on our own terms. Suicide should not be treated any differently then if someone say had a heart attack.

My condolences to family and friends on their loss, take heart that your loved one has found peace.

It seems quite strange that newspapers readily print information about suicides and suicide attempts of prisoners around the state but that when it comes to college students that information is missing.

"At the same time, I also feel that college and universities are in a unique position in their communities to help their students learn from painful events like this one by beginning a public dialogue about them. I can't help but believe that one reason why suicide, like rape, is still so pervasive in our society is because of the social stigmas attached to its victims. Rape survivors, like the families of people who take their own lives, feel a sense of shame and guilt about what happened. It's only by talking with other survivors who've been through similar experiences that we begin to dispel some of that shame and guilt."

I fail to see how publicly talking about a student's suicide at St. Mike's "helps" anyone else. It seems to me that it is just an excuse to monger in someone else's pain. How do you know that the families of suicide victims "feel a sense of shame and guilt?" And if they do, how do you know that airing the family's tragedy at St. Mike's will help them with their supposed "shame and guilt"? And please explain the logic of how one would prevent a future suicide by supposedly "de-stigmatizing" past suicide victims? On the contrary, that would, if anything, encourage suicides, would it not, by telling someone, it's okay if you're thinking about suicide? You preface your statements with the words, "I also feel," and "I can't help but believe," so do you have data to support your therapeutic prescriptions, or is this just one Seven Days reporter making this stuff up?

The only thing an institution should do is report the tragedy in a respectful way -- which is apparently exactly what St. Mike's did -- and then LEAVE THE FAMILY OF THE KID ALONE AND RESPECT THEIR PRIVACY.

Jeez.

I learned about the suicides of two college friends from my alumni magazine (one was a popular teacher here at Woodbury College at the time of his death). While I wasn't happy to get the news, I was glad the magazine made the cause of death clear instead of using a phrase like "died unexpectedly." For a friend, even one who's fallen out of touch, wondering what really happened can be painful.

My gut feeling is that suicide has already been so thoroughly glamorized by TV, movies, novels and "high culture" like opera that destigmatizing it wouldn't have much effect. (A romanticized view of suicide has been with us since the ancient Greeks and Romans, despite Christianity's somewhat successful efforts to portray it as a sin.) But maybe research indicates otherwise.

I've never commented on an online forum like this before, but due to the comments, my passion for mental health advocacy and reducing stigma I'd like to share my thoughts. I'm having a hard time staying calm, articulating myself without displacing my anger toward. It's because we don't talk about it, aren't taught HOW to talk about it, or encouraged to share our feelings of shame, guilt, fear, despair, anger and frustration that we suffer, struggle and remain in conflict during the aftermath of Suicide. Yes, I said it. Suicide. Say it. It needs to be said and recognized. Whether assisted or not, say the WORD. Recognize it, and TALK about so we can understand the complexities. Yes, it is romanticized and that's the problem. IF we sit back and let it be romanticized like so many other injustices out there, we fail! We fail as a community working to recognize the signs to try help one another before they choose the last option. We fail at dismantling the myths of contagion. Keep it private and you keep a public health issue in the dark. It's time to take risks, it's time to let survivors be encouraged to share and help to keep the fire for life going. EDUCATE YOURSELVES!

Thank you, Ken! Thank you for taking risks.

i am not an intellectual, but I would like to address the real issue here, not the way it was conveyed but the article itself begs for action. What do we need to introduce in the college life that will prevent or reduce these incidences. I myself felt suicidal in College and took it upon myself to seek a counselor at a dicounted rate for college of $10. For months I was able to utilize a brown university student in his internship to help me understand my predicament. Through my own hard work and his expertise, I was able to move forward. i sought this on my own. Not everyone would. lets figure out what is needed on these campuses' to facilitate a healthy outlook in one life if intimidated by the real world. We spend so much money on athletics, arts, and the teaching profession, but why is there nothing to address this epidemic?

To modify my rant from yesterday, to make sure I am not misunderstood:

I think general public discussion about suicide on college campuses (and, frankly probably in high school, too) is a good thing, to the extent it might avert a single suicide.

That is very different from an uninvited public discussion about a particular student's death, which is nothing more than gawking and an intrusion into a family's private pain.

There is an important difference.

I had seen the reference to this blog in Seven Days this week and felt compelled to comment. On April 24, 2010 we lost our 18 year old son, Hunter, to suicide. Needless to say the last 10 months have been the most painful of my life. From the day it happened, we have been open about how Hunter died. The 800+ people at his memorial service were reminded by the officiant that Hunter died due to an illness that took over his life. I have never felt a drop of shame for what happened to Hunter, only sadness that will last my lifetime.

Education and dialogue are the best prevention tools that I can identify through this process. While Hunter had voiced some of his struggles to me and we were addressing them, he never revealed how just how deep his pain was to me. However, he had mentioned it to two of his close friend, who did what they thought was right at the time. They now have the burden of having that knowledge and not communicating it to others at a time that might have helped Hunter. I have no anger toward his friends, they loved him deeply, and did what, I think, is typical of teenagers. They thought they could talk him out of it and protect him from his dark pain. It didn't work. Do I wish they had responded differently? Of course.

Hunter's friends, family and community have learned a tragic lesson. This is where the education piece comes in. If these young people knew how critical it was to share this information with another adult, our lives might be drastically different. High Schools and colleges as well as families and communities need to provide an opportunity for discussion and education about the prevention of suicide. As dozens of Hunter's friends came to our house last spring, they all got my "lecture": "Take care of yourself, take care of your friends, and talk to each other, including your parents, even when you don't want to".

I continue to consider all the "shoulda, coulda, wouldas" and I know I will forever. Ken Picard has identified a huge social issue surrounding suicide. Tiptoeing around the subject and not addressing it head on will not save lives. We all need to become better educated on this topic. I have had one adult tell me that through the loss of Hunter, a conversation took place with her child that likely saved his life.

Education and ongoing dialogue, easy to implement. It may prevent another death.

MJ, thanks for your heartfelt comments and my sincerest condolences for your loss. Your posting said it better than I ever could.

This moving article -- in Seven Days, no less -- makes the case as well as it can be made that a suicide is no one else's business but the family's.

http://www.7dvt.com/2011sounds-silence-suicides

"So, does the campus or surrounding community really need to hear what we already know when a student dies by his or her own hand? Surely the family’s privacy needs take precedence? Aren’t there plenty of other ways to make students “aware” of suicide warning signs?"

* * *

"Whenever I receive an email from UVM about a student’s untimely death, I picture a family just like mine; a family whose members may not yet be able to utter the S-word, who may not know what to say at all, even to each other. The loss of their loved one shouldn’t be turned into a media event unless and until they decide. To demand that they announce their child’s cause of death as a “public service” seems downright cruel — and, in my mind, disturbingly disingenuous. I know my family’s situation is extreme, and it’s unlikely that a college student’s suicide would result in anything similar, but I am compelled to argue in favor of privacy for all families in crisis. And the word for it is decency."

Amen.

St. Michael's has sidestepped this tragedy. In the beginning they seemed supportive and yet in tune with the need to open up and talk about this ever growing issue. They were on board with the Porco family in doing a Fresh Check event to raise awareness. I guess too much time has passed in their eyes as I heard they have backed out of this "free" awareness event. They are no better then any other school who says "sorry for your loss" and turns the other cheek. When are people going to stop whispering and letting our children know that if they feel "trapped" their are alternatives and others that share the same feelings.

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